My Elevator Pitch for Special Librarians to Management

When I first worked as a Special Librarian, I found the role fascinating. I enjoyed working with beautiful literature in the field of architecture and the arts, and I appreciated the recognition of being able to contribute my knowledge and skills to the wonderful architects and town planners working in the same organisation.

Now over 50 years later, having working with architects, town planners, engineers, government policy makers, veterinarians, virologists, parasitologists, chemists, immunologists, glass and plastics technologists, metallurgists, environmental scientists and business executives in Australia and the UK, I remain passionate about the role of Special Librarians and the contributions they make to their professional colleagues in their parent organisations.

Today, many Special Librarians face budgetary pressures and organisational reviews and so perhaps it is time to review the role of Special Librarians and where they should fit in organisations.  Here I set out how I think Special Libraries differ from other libraries and I set out what my elevator pitch would be to management if today I was required to offer that.   Then I explain the reasons for the points I make in the pitch.

Special Libraries in my view differ considerably from other types of libraries:–

  • Special Libraries exist ONLY to support the objectives of their parent bodies – e.g.  companies, law firms, hospitals, government departments, societies and professional associations, banks, courts and the media, etc.  And they have a responsibility to understand thoroughly those objectives and processes.
  • The closer their reporting relationship to senior executives the more effective they can be.
  • Most do not have the security of having a legislative reason for existing.
  • The primary focus of their activities is providing valuable information in specialised subject fields to key executives and subject specialists in their parent organisations.
  • In 2014, this usually requires access to valuable information online but may still require the collection and management of publications.  Often the information they manage may be very expensive such as multi-client studies, expensive online services or internal reports, precedents or case studies.
  • Physical collections should be kept as targeted and as small as possible.
  • Some may create databases for their parent organisations in their subject fields either with published or internal data such as language expertise of individuals.
  • Very few have any responsibility to collect and/or retain historical publications.
  • Very few have any responsibilities to serve the public unless their parent body does too.
  • All professional staff should have (or should develop) a special knowledge of the subject fields within which they work and the information resources relevant to that field.

So the very first task of Special Librarians is to thoroughly understand the objectives, challenges and processes of the parent body, and the key staff in the organisation and their roles.  This enables the Special Librarians to align the management of their Special Libraries with the parent body’s objectives.  It is important for Library Managers to report to a senior person in the organisation to be kept informed of major goals and threats to their parent body and changes as they occur and to be able to contribute timely input to decision making processes. The ADBS (Association des professionels de l’information et de la documentation) in France recommends the function should be at a “level of strategic and operational corporate policy in order to contribute more to added value”. (The Past, Present and Future of Information Management report. 2014)

This knowledge enables Special Librarians to frame:

  • the collection development policies
  • the social media reporting activities
  • internal databases needed
  • the organisation of speedy communication as necessary.

Having aligned their operations with those of their parent bodies, the Special Librarians should be able to articulate the value of their services and how specifically their Special Libraries help to meet the goals of the parent organisations.  For example all:

  • Use their unique knowledge of the publication supply chain to support all key functions in their parent organisations. This should include public documents such as company documents, legislation, patents, trademarks, and even images etc.

Many:

  • Contribute to
    • policy development.
    • strategic planning
    • sales and/or marketing campaigns.
  • Provide critical information
    • to help with product design and development.
    • for research scientists
    • to help win court cases.
    • to help solve urgent medical problems.
  • Provide valuable background information for other corporate functions:
    • Finance
    • Supply
    • Human Resources
    • Public or Government Relations
  • Provide essential support to internal training, e.g. in Defence.
  • Teach organisational staff effective digital search techniques.

In the current economic climate, simply claiming to manage collections and provide library or information services is not enough.  These are features not benefits, and are meaningless in terms of discussing value.

So today, more than 50 years since I first started working as a Special Librarian and later teaching Special Library administration at RMIT and consulting to others, if I were to meet a senior executive in the lift, this  would be my “elevator pitch” to him or her:

My Elevator Pitch

With the pressure to contain costs and increase efficiency and productivity, this Knowledge Centre is an invaluable support service for this organisation, because we know how to collect and disseminate the best information from around the world efficiently and quickly.

And if I had the opportunity I would add:

Therefore we: 

  1. Are a major contributor to the knowledge infrastructure of this organisation.
  2. Minimise risks.
  3. Improve cost efficiency.
  4. Inspire innovation among the staff.
  5. Contribute significantly to productivity improvement.

To maximise the benefit for this organisation, there are three key success factors

  1. The function must be endorsed by top management and should report to a senior executive.
  2. The Knowledge Centre must be well run.
  3. The Knowledge Centre Manager should be responsible for full operating costs if possible.

Elevator speeches are supposed to be about thirty five words long, but if possible I would try to get my other points made.  Let’s go through those eight points and examine why I would include them if I could.

My Elevator Pitch

A. How do Special Librarians running Knowledge Centres contribute to the knowledge infrastructure of their parent organisations?

There is a global data deluge today and Special librarians are in a preeminent position to use their unique knowledge of search technologies and publishing, to locate the published knowledge needed by their clients both manual and online, both for the fee-based and the free web information sources more skilfully than other professional staff in the organisation.

Knowledge infrastructures are defined as ”robust internetworks of people, artefacts, and institutions which generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds”. (Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research Challenges. Report of a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation University of Michigan School of Information, 25-28 May 2012, p. 23

Ideally the IT staff and Special Library staff work in harmony.  While the IT staff have a critical role to play in knowledge transfer, they provide the pipes. Special Librarians evaluate, select and provide the information to go through those pipes!  So what are their special skills?  They:

  • Have special knowledge of the publications supply chain including published information in the specialised fields of their parent organisations.
  • Compile and index raw information from the field, internal publications or primary publications and record them in databases. So we can integrate internally generated information with external information to maximise efficiency.
  • Train others to use modern information resources to find reliable information.
  • Find reliable information more quickly than others in their organisations due to their specialised training.
  • Have excellent knowledge of the value added online databases from providers such as LexisNexis, Proquest, Factiva, Thomson Reuters, Ovid, etc.
  • Have excellent knowledge of the latest techniques for research on the open WWW and on the Deep Web.
  • Can obtain information needed only temporarily, quickly and cheaply from other libraries.

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B. How do Special Libraries minimise risk?

Special Libraries can be incredibly valuable and minimise risk by:

  • Validating the information delivered so their clients can rely on information quality.
  • Undertaking due diligence research for Human Resources or compliance staff.
  • Carrying out company research to ensure corporate suppliers, contractors, customers, collaborators are reliable and do not have any conflicts of interest.
  • Providing timely critical life saving information in time.
  • Fearlessly delivering information that may not on occasions be welcome – such as a competitor’s recent success with a new product, or a newly discovered threat or significant change – political, legal, health or commercial.

Some Special Librarians have been able to identify critical share register information prior to a hostile takeover. Others have relentlessly reported new information as it became available on the health hazards of asbestos, talc, and other products.  In recent times, disastrous nationally reported recruiting errors could have been avoided with simple searches, if Special Librarians had been asked to carry out background checks on job candidates.  Disastrous investment decisions could have been avoided if validated statistics on the projected demand for a mineral had been sought from reliable world sources. The stories of health librarians being involved on clinical rounds along with their iPads are also inspiring.

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C. How do Special Libraries improve cost efficiency?

Although it is easy for many people in an organisation to purchase multiple copies of publications, Special Libraries can reduce the organisation’s expenditure on published information by:

  • Saving unnecessary duplication of information resources within the parent organisation.
  • Saving management staff time by undertaking information research for key staff.
  • Contributing to efficient management by providing “best practice” information on current management processes.
  • Providing published knowledge from around the world to key staff at minimum cost.
  • Borrowing via established national networks of libraries rather than buying, when appropriate.

However, while the Libraries need to be easily accessible to key staff, care should be taken to minimise their occupancy costs especially if their organisations are located in high rental areas

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D. How do Special Librarians inspire innovation among the entire staff?

By bringing the best and latest information from online and published sources into their organisations, Special Librarians bring the ideas of the world’s best in their field for their professional colleagues.  Proactively, they:

  • Review the quality and relevance of the publications (and hence ideas) they are bringing into their organisations.
  • Highlight or alert key staff to especially relevant new information available.
  • Keep in touch with key groups in the organisation to be up to date with their current projects and information needs.
  • Offer focussed timely current awareness services from worldwide sources using Twitter or other Social Media to inspire new ideas among the recipients.
  • Continuous improvement in an organisation is dependent in part on the introduction of new ideas into organisations.

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E. How do Special Libraries/Librarians contribute significantly to productivity improvement?

These days when many staff undertake their own searches, Special Librarians act as consultants training other staff on the most effective and efficient use of electronic resources, both behind paywalls on the Internet and on the free WWW.  Productivity is also improved when:

  • Information delivered to clients helps them avoid “reinventing the wheel”.
  • Information retrieved, identifies potential partners, collaborators, suppliers or competitors for the parent organisation.
  • Proactive information services improve the productivity of key staff.
  • Special librarians are invited to participate in project meetings or when they are “embedded” in specific departments and can contribute their information skills in situ.

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So there are many valuable benefits that Special Librarians contribute to their parent organisations.

But there are some key success factors that also need to be in place.

My Elevator Pitch-2

1. What do I mean by “endorsed by top management”

  • Ideally top management should understand the role of a modern Special Library, how it differs from other types of libraries and how published information contributes to the operation of their organisation – whether that information is scientific or medical literature, legal information, business or management information, government documents or any body of professional literature.  This may require briefings from the Library Managers to their senior executives or articles in in house publications or on the library’s web page.
  • Management needs to understand that access to high quality information resources requires investment. So the function needs to be realistically funded, even if some cost recovery is considered a useful mechanism for evaluating usage.
  • The Library Manager should report to a senior person in the organisation – e.g. Strategic Planning Manager, Senior Partner, Officer in Charge, Director of Research and Development, Company Secretary,  Head of Corporate Services,  etc.  The ability of the Special Librarian to identify and deliver useful relevant information for decision making is completely eroded if the Special Librarian is kept in the dark about the major activities of the parent organization and isolated from the senior staff in the organization.
  • The Special Library should be consulted from the beginning of any major project to ensure the goal can be met with quality information on time.
  • Endorsement is necessary.  All professional staff aim to do as well as they can, to achieve promotions and to be recognised for their skills.  If they perceive the library is an afterthought or a storage facility and not a critical part of the organisation’s infrastructure, the library will be ignored and the Librarian undermined. If on the other hand the library is clearly endorsed and supported by top management, the library will be seen as a resource provided for all professional staff to use wisely.

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2. What do I mean by a Special Library “should be well run”?

  • Ideally the library collection generally should be as small as possible and focussed on the needs of the parent body.  In most cases, the aim should NOT be to have a big collection – it should be to have reliable and fast access to very relevant high quality information whether it is held in-house or not.  It would be better to purchase one highly relevant very expensive market research study for instance, or subscribe to an expensive online service, in some environments, than to collect a lot of free or inexpensive publications all of which then need to be catalogued and stored, but possibly do not contain “valuable” insights for the parent body and may be rarely used.

So in some environments in the 21st century, Special Librarians work without physical library collections but with online access to powerful information resources such as Bloomberg in the financial services sector.

  • Key Special Library staff should be fully aware of major projects, major challenges and what keeps the senior staff of the organisation awake at night!  They should be both proactive and reactive, with knowledge of the specialised literature and sources they are handling, and thus recognised as key partners supporting all professional staff in the organisations.   This is where the Special Librarian can contribute valuable information for the knowledge infrastructure of their parent body.
  • Access to the most appropriate online resources is today essential. Many of these will be available via the Web but behind paywalls. Other free sources such as Social Media are also often highly relevant. The Special Librarian needs to have the knowledge to determine which sources are appropriate for various tasks.  Some Special Libraries have been closed because they avoided the most appropriate electronic resources or failed to make the case for investing in the most relevant databases.
  • If there is a collection of hard copy publications, it should be well catalogued and classified.  The least effective Special Libraries are those that have too many, barely relevant and often free publications that are available readily elsewhere and catalogued obscurely. Even gratis publications that are not highly relevant to the parent bodies’ activities should not be kept just in case they may be useful.
  • Some of the best Special Libraries collate valuable internal data into online databases, e.g. languages, or other skills.  Some are able to on-sell some of their internally created databases to external data providers in return for royalties.
  • Many Special Librarians now deliver insights to specific issues using a variety of online resources and sometimes with visual presentations, such as dashboards.  Some even collate field data to be reported along with relevant knowledge from online resources.
  • The staff must be fully trained and up to date with their knowledge of how to use modern services available to them and importantly to validate the information they provide.  In addition to knowledge of online information resources and database management skills, Special Library staff also need other skills such as  understanding financial statements, the ability to analyse data, communication skills including the ability to rapidly extract and summarise key information and to present the results sometimes using dashboards.
  • Timely response is more important than ever and yet validation and cross checking to ensure that only reliable results are delivered are also increasingly important.
  • Interacting with other libraries – especially sharing knowledge and inter library lending is useful as long as there are no conflicts with the parent body’s goals. If high cost publications have been purchased for sole use of the owner, they must not be loaned to other libraries.
  • Marketing and promotion of Special libraries continues to be important. In the 21st century promotional opportunities abound with the ability to have a website, to manage online access to licensed publications through a corporate intranet, to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook. But marketing still requires a rigorous analysis of the products and services required by key members of staff in the parent organisation.
  • Measurement of performance is essential. Rather than simple counts of total questions that can include valueless activities, contributions to major projects need to be monitored, analysed and reported.  This data will be needed to continually show the value the Special Library is delivering to the organisation.

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3. Why should Special Librarians be responsible for their “full operating costs at least”?

  • When Special Librarians are permitted to control their total operating costs, they are able to make the wisest strategic and financial decisions. Many Special Librarians appear to have responsibility only for their direct material costs – i.e. the costs of purchasing publications, and paying for site licences etc.  But the total operating costs include a lot more items such as:
    • labour costs –i.e. salaries and labour associated overheads such as holiday pay, sick pay, superannuation, training, workers compensation, travel etc.
    • occupancy costs such as rent, electricity, telephone, IT, cleaning, maintenance

When Special Librarians have responsibility for total costs, they can assess where they can get the most bang for their bucks! Do they need more space or less space, do they need more staff or more staff training?  Do they need hard copy publications, or online services?   Often Special Libraries can appear to be very costly to financial staff because their occupancy costs are so high.  This is another reason to keep collections as small and as focussed as possible. There are many examples of Special Libraries reducing the size of their collections and the space they occupy and therefore their total costs and finding that their collections are seen to be more focussed and relevant and easier to navigate, and the total services are more cost efficient.

  • There should also be capital budgets to plan for upgrading expensive equipment.

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Conclusion

It is not convincing enough in my opinion to demand that libraries be saved, nor to argue that online information may be unreliable.  It may not be necessary in the 21st century for an organisation to have a library collection at all.  The critical need is for organisations to have access to relevant, important, complete and reliable information WHEN THEY NEED IT and this information may or may not be contained in printed publications depending on the activities of the parent body.

Most professional employees in 2014 have a basic knowledge of using simple tools like the simple search function in Google, but few have extensive knowledge of the total information landscape.  So professionally trained Special Librarians can be very valuable members of senior executive teams helping to manage the essential information resources as part of the knowledge infrastructure of their parent organisations

Elizabeth Swan

August 2014

Post script: After the first positions as a Special Librarian in Melbourne and the UK, Elizabeth lectured part time on Special Library Administration at RMIT in 1968-9 while Librarian at CSIRO Animal Health.  After a short period at Excerpta Medica in Amsterdam, she managed ACI Information Service from 1972-1988.  ACI closed its Melbourne business library and Sydney technical library in 1988 after a hostile takeover, but the libraries had survived longer than other corporate activities – R&D, HR, Strategic Planning, Marketing Research, and Public Relations.  The Patents Department survived as its costs were low – especially occupancy – and its perceived value high.  ACI closed ACI Information Service on condition an effort was made to find another entity to “take it over” so ACI staff could still use it.  Thus Information Edge Pty Ltd (now named Web Search Pacific Pty Ltd) was founded as a joint venture with the State Library of NSW and ACI staff including the Patents staff became customers.  At Information Edge, Elizabeth consulted to several special libraries.  She was awarded the Maria Gemenis award twice for her contributions to Special Librarianship and was the second recipient of the Williamson Award.  She is a Fellow and Honorary Life Member of ALIA.


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